Vygotsky. The Historical Meaning of The Crisis in Psychology: A Methodological Investigation

Chapter 10

We proceed to the positive formulations. From the fragmentary analyses of the separate elements of a science we have learned to view it as a complex whole which develops dynamically and lawfully. In which stage of development is our science at this moment, what is the meaning and nature of the crisis it experiences and what will be its outcome? Let us proceed to the answer to these questions. When one is somewhat acquainted with the methodology (and history) of the sciences, science loses its image of a dead, finished, immobile whole consisting of ready-made statements and becomes a living system which constantly develops and moves forward, and which consists of proven facts, laws, suppositions, structures, and conclusions which are continually being supplemented, criticized, verified, partially rejected, interpreted and organized anew, etc. Science commences to be understood dialectically in its movement, i.e., from the perspective of its dynamics, growth, development, evolution. It is from this point of view that we must evaluate and interpret each stage of development. Thus, the first thing from which we proceed is the acknowledgement of a crisis. What this crisis signifies is the subject of different interpretations. What follows are the most important kinds of interpretation of its meaning.

First of all, there are psychologists who totally deny the existence of a crisis. Chelpanov belongs among them, as do most of the Russian psychologists of the old school in general (only Lange and Frank have seen what is being done in science). In the opinion of such psychologists everything is all right in our science, just as in mineralogy. The crisis came from outside. Some persons ventured to reform our science; the official ideology required its revision. But for neither was there any objective basis in the science itself. It is true, in the debate one had to admit that a scientific reform was undertaken in America as well, but for the reader it was carefully–and perhaps sincerely–concealed that not a single psychologist who left his trace in science managed to avoid the crisis. This first conception is so blind that it is of no further interest to us. It can be fully explained by the fact that psychologists of this type are essentially eclectics and popularizers of other persons’ ideas. Not only have they never engaged in the research and philosophy of their science, they have not even critically assessed each new school. They have accepted everything: the WUrzburg school and Husserl’s phenomenology, Wundt’s and Titchener’s experimentalism and Marxism, Spencer and Plato. When we deal with the great revolutions that take place in science, such persons are outside of it not only theoretically. In a practical sense as well they play no role whatever. The empiricists betrayed empirical psychology while defending it. The eclectics assimilated all they could from ideas that were hostile to them. The popularizers can be enemies to no one, they will popularize the psychology that wins. Now Chelpanov is publishing much about Marxism. Soon he will be studying reflexology, and the first textbook of the victorious behaviorism will be compiled by him or a student of his. On the whole they are professors and examiners, organizers and “Kulturträger,” but not a single investigation of any importance has emerged from their school.

Others see the crisis, but evaluate it very subjectively. The crisis has divided psychology into two camps. For them the borderline lies always between the author of a specific view and the rest of the world. But, according to Lotze, even a worm that is half crushed sets off its reflection against the whole world. This is the official viewpoint of militant behaviorism. Watson (1926) thinks that there are two psychologies: a correct one–his own–and an incorrect one. The old one will die of its halfheartedness. The biggest detail he sees is the existence of halfhearted psychologists. The medieval traditions with which Wundt did not want to break wined the psychology without a soul. As you see, everything is simplified to an extreme. There is no particular problem in turning psychology into a natural science. For Watson this coincides with the point of view of the ordinary person, i.e., the methodology of common sense. Bekhterev, on the whole, evaluates the epochs in psychology in the same way: everything before Bekbterev was a mistake, everything after Bekhterev is the truth. Many psychologists assess the crisis likewise. Since it is subjective, it is the easiest initial naive viewpoint. The psychologists whom we examined in the chapter on the unconscious [41] also reason this way: there is empirical psychology, which is permeated by metaphysical idealism–this is a remnant; and there is a genuine methodology of the era, which coincides with Marxism. Everything which is not the first must be the sec6nd, as no third possibility is given.

Psychoanalysis is in many respects the opposite of empirical psychology. This already suffices to declare it to be a Marxist system! For these psychologists the crisis coincides with the struggle they are fighting. There are allies and enemies, other distinctions do not exist.

The objective-empirical diagnoses of the crisis are no better: the severity of the crisis is measured by the number of schools that can be counted. Allport, in counting the currents of American psychology, defended this point of view (counting schools): the school of James and the school of Titchener, behaviorism and psychoanalysis. The units involved in the elaboration of the science are enumerated side by side, but not a single attempt is made to penetrate into the objective meaning of what each school is defending and the dynamic relations between the schools.

The error becomes more serious when one begins to view this situation as a fundamental characteristic of a crisis. Then the boundary between this crisis and any other, between the crisis in psychology and any other science, between every particular disagreement or debate and a crisis, is erased. In a word, one uses an anti-historical and anti-methodological approach which usually leads to absurd results.

Portugalov (1925, p. 12) wishes to argue the incomplete and relative nature of rcflexology and not only slips into agnosticism and relativism of the purest order, but ends up with obvious nonsense. “In the chemistry, mechanics, electrophysics and electrophysiology of the brain everything is changing dramatically and nothing has yet been clearly and definitely demonstrated.” Credulous persons believe in natural science, but “when we stay in the realm of medicine, do we really believe, with the hand on our heart, in the unshakable and stable force of natural science . . .and does natural science itself . . .believe in its unshakable, stable, and genuine character?”

There follows an enumeration of the theoretical changes in the natural sciences which are, moreover, lumped together. A sign of equality is put between the lack of solidity or stability of a particular theory and the whole of natural science, and what constitutes the foundation of the truth of natural science–the change of its theories and views–is passed off as the proof of its impotence. That this is agnosticism is perfectly dear, but two aspects deserve to be mentioned in connection with what follows: (1) in the whole chaos of views that serve to picture the natural sciences as lacking a single firm point, it is only . . . subjective child psychology based upon introspection which turns out to be unshakable; (2) amidst all the sciences which demonstrate the unreliability of the natural sciences, geometry is listed alongside optics and bacteriology. It so happens that

Euclid said that the sum of the angles of a triangle equals two right angles; Labachevsky dethroned Euclid and demonstrated that the sum of the angles of a triangle is less than two right angles, and Riemann dethroned Lobachevsky and demonstrated that the sum of the angles of a triangle is more than two right angles (ibid., p. 13).

We will still have more than one occasion to meet the analogy between geometry and psychology, and therefore it is worthwhile to memorize this model of a-methodological thinking: (1) geometry is a natural science; (2) Linné, Cuvier, and Darwin “dethroned” each other in the same way as Euclid, Lobachevsky, and Riemann did; finally (3) Lobachevsky dethroned Euclid and demonstrated that... [42]. But even people with only elementary knowledge of the subject know that here we are not dealing with the knowledge of real triangles, but with ideal forms in mathematical, deductive systems, that these three theses follow from three different assumptions and do not contradict each other, just like other arithmetical counting systems do not contradict the decimal system. They co-exist and this determines their whole meaning and methodological nature. But what can be the value for the diagnosis of the crisis in an inductive science of a viewpoint which regards each two consecutive names as a crisis and each new opinion as a refutation of the truth?

Kornilov’s (1925) diagnosis is closer to the truth. He views a struggle between two currents–reflexology and empirical psychology and their synthesis – Marxist psychology.

Already Frankfurt (1926) had advanced the opinion that reflexology cannot be viewed as a united whole, that it consists of contradictory tendencies and directions. This is even more true of empirical psychology. A unitary empirical psychology does not exist at all. In general, this simplified schema was created more as a program for operations, critical understanding, and demarcation than for an analysis of the crisis. For the latter it lacks reference to the causes, tendency, dynamics, and prognosis of the crisis. It is a logical classification of viewpoints present in the USSR and no more than that.

Thus, there has been no theoiy of the crisis in anything so far discussed, but only subjective communiqués compiled by the staffs of the quarreling parties. Here what is important is to beat the enemy; nobody will waste his time studying him.

Still closer to a theory of the crisis comes Lange (1914, p. 43), who already presents an embryonic description of it. But he has more feeling for than understanding of the crisis. Not even his historical information is to be trusted. For him the crisis commenced with the fall of associationism, i.e., he takes an accidental circumstance for the cause. Having established that “presently some general crisis is taking place” in psychology, he continues: “It consists of the replacement of the previous associationism by a new psychological theory.” This is incorrect if only because associationism never was a generally accepted psychological system which formed the core of our science, but to the present day remains one of the fighting currents which has become much stronger lately and has been revived in reflexology and behaviorism. The psychology of Mill, Bain, and Spencer was never more than what it is now. It has fought faculty psychology (Herbart) like it is doing now. To see the root of the crisis in associationism is to give a very subjective assessment. Lange himself views it as the root of the rejection of the sensualistic doctrine. But today as well Gestalt theory views associationism as the main flaw of all psychology, including the newest.

In reality, it is not the adherents and opponents of this principle who are divided by some basic trait, but groups that evolved upon much more fundamental grounds. Furthermore, it is not entirely correct to reduce it to a struggle between the views of individual psychologists: it is important to lay bare what is shared and what is contradictory behind these various opinions. Lange’s false understanding of the crisis ruined his own work. In defending the principle of a realistic, biological psychology, he fights Ribot and relies upon Husserl and other extreme idealists, who reject the possibility of psychology as a natural science. But some things, and not the least important ones, he established correctly. These are his correct propositions:

(1) There is no generally accepted system of our science. Each of the expositions of psychology by eminent authors is based upon an entirely different system. All basic concepts and categories are interpreted in various ways. The crisis touches upon the very foundations of the science.

(2) The crisis is destructive, but wholesome. It reveals the growth of the science, its enrichment, its force, not its impotence or bankruptcy. The serious nature of the crisis is caused by the fact that the territory of psychology lies between sociology and biology, between whith Kant wanted to divide it.

(3) Not a single psychological work is possible without first establishing the basic principles of this science. One should lay the foundations before starting to build.

(4) Finally, the common goal is to elaborate a new theory–a “renewed system of the science.”

However, Lange’s understanding of this goal is entirely incorrect. For him it is “the critical evaluation of all contemporary currents and the attempt to reconcile them” (Lange, 1914, p. 43). And he tried to reconcile what cannot be reconciled: Husserl and biological psychology; together with James he attacked Spencer and with Dilthey be renounced biology. For him the idea of a possible reconciliation followed from the idea that “a revolution took place” “against asso ciationism and physiological psychology” (ibid., p. 47) and that all new currents are connected by a common starting point and goal. That is why he gives a global characteristic of the crisis as an earthquake, a swampy area, etc. For him “a period of chaos has commenced” and the task is reduced to the “critique and logical elaboration” of the various opinions engendered by a common cause. This is a picture of the crisis as it was sketched by the participants in the struggle of the 1870s. Lange’s personal attempt is the best evidence for the struggle between the real operative forces which determine the crisis. He regards the combination of subjective and objective psychology as a necessary postulate of psychology, rather than as a topic of discussion and a problem. As a result he introduces this dualism into his whole system. By contrasting his realistic or biological understanding of the mind with Natorp’s [1904] idealistic conception, he in fact accepts the existence of two psychologies, as we will see below.

But the most curious thing is that Ebbinghaus, whom Lange considers to be an associationist, i.e., a pre-critical psychologist, defines the crisis more correctly. In his opinion the relative imperfection of psychology is evident from the fact that the debates concerning almost all of the most general of its questions have never come to a halt. In other sciences there is unanimity about all the ultimate principles or the basic views which must be at the basis of investigation, and if a change takes place it does not have the character of a crisis. Agreement is soon reestablished. In psychology things are entirely different, in Ebbinghaus’ [1902, p. 9] opinion. Here these basic views are constantly subjected to vivid doubt, are constantly being contested.

Ebbinghaus considers the disagreement to be a chronic phenomenon. Psychology lacks clear, reliable foundations. And in 1874 the same Brentano, with whose name Lange would have the crisis start, demanded that instead of the many psychologies, one psychology should be created. Obviously, already at that time there existed not only many currents instead of a single system, but many psychologies. Today as well this is a most accurate diagnosis of the crisis. Now, too, metbodologists claim that we are at the same point as Brentano was [Binswanger, 1922, p. 6]. This means that what takes place in psychology is not a struggle of views which may be reconciled and which are united by a common enemy and purpose. It is not even a struggle between currents or directions within a single science, but a struggle between different sciences. There arc many psychologies–this means that it is different, mutually exclusive and really existing types of science that are fighting. Psychoanalysis, intentional psychology,49 reflexology–all these are different types of science, separate disciplines which tend to turn into a general psychology, i.e., to the subordination and exclusion of the other disciplines. We have seen both the meaning and the objective features of this tendency toward a general science. There can be no bigger mistake than to take this struggle for a struggle of views. Binswanger (1922, p. 6) begins by mentioning Brentano’s demand and Windelband’s remark that with each representative psychology begins anew. The cause of this he sees neither in a lack of factual material, which has been gathered in abundance, nor in the absence of philosophical-methodological principles, of which we also have enough, but in the lack of cooperation between philosophers and empiricists in psychology: “There is hardly a single science where theorists and practitioners took such diverse paths.” Psychology lacks a methodology–this is the author’s conclusion, and the main thing is that we cannot create a methodology now. We cannot say that general psychology has already fulfilled its duties as a branch of methodology. On the contrary, wherever you look, imperfection, uncertainty, doubt, contradiction reign. We can only talk of the problems of general psychology and not even of that, but of an introduction to the problems of general psychology [ibid., p. 5]. Binswanger sees in psychologists a “courage and will toward (the creation of a new) psychology.” In order to accomplish this they must break with the prejudices of centuries, and this shows one thing: that to this day, the general psychology has not been created. We must not ask, with Bergson, what would have happened if Kepler, Galileo,and Newton had been psychologists, but what can still happen despite the fact that they were mathematicians [ibid., p. 21].

Thus, it may seem that the chaos in psychology is entirely natural and that the meaning of the crisis which psychology became aware of is as follows: there aist many psychologies which have the tendency to create a single psychology by developing a general psychology. For the latter purpose it is not enough to have a Galileo, i.e., a genius who would create the foundations of the science. This is the general opinion of European methodology as it had evolved toward the end of the nineteenth century. Some, mainly French, authors hold this opinion even today. In Russia, Vaguer (1923)–almost the only psychologist who has dealt with methodological questions–has always defended it. He expresses the same opinion on the occasion of his analysis of the Annés Psychologiques, i.e., a synopsis of the international literature. This is his conclusion: thus, we have quite a number of psychological schools, but not a unified psychology as an independent area of psychology [sic]. From the fact that it doesn’t exist does not follow that it cannot exist (ibid.). The answer to the question where and how it may be found can only be given by the history of science.

This is how biology developed. In the seventeenth century two naturalists lay the foundation for two areas of zoology: Buffon for the description of animals and their way of life, and Linné for their classification. Gradually, both sections engendered a number of new problems, morphology appeared, anatomy, etc. The investigations were isolated from each other and represented as it were different sciences, which were in no way connected but for the fact that they both studied animals. The different sciences were at enmity, attempted to occupy the prevailing position as the mutual contacts increased and they could not remain apart. The brilliant Lamarck succeeded in integrating the uncoordinated pieces of knowledge into one book, which he called “Philosophy of Zoology.” He united his investigations with those of others, Buffon and Linné included, summarized the results, harmonized them with each other, and created the area of science which ‘freviranus called general biology. A single and abstract science was created from the uncoordinated disciplines, which, since the works of Darwin, could stand on its own feet. It is the opinion of Vagner that what was done with the disciplines of biology before their combination into a general biology or abstract zoology at the beginning of the nineteenth century is now taking place in the field of psychology at the beginning of the twentieth century. This belated synthesis in the form of a general psychology must repeat Lamarck’s synthesis, i.e., it must be based on an analogous principle. Vaguer sees more than a simple analogy in this. For him psychology must traverse not a similai but the same path. Biopsychology is part of biology. It is an abstraction of the concrete schools or their synthesis, the achievements of all of these schools form its content. It cannot have, and neither has general biology, its own special method of investigation. Each time it makes use of the method of a science that is its composite part. It takes account of the achievements, verifying them from the point of view of evolutionwy theoty and indicating their corresponding places in the general system (Vaguer, 1923). This is the expression of a more or less general opinion.

Some details in Vaguer call forth doubt. In his understanding, general psychology (1) now forms a part of biology, is based upon the theory of evolution (its basis) etc. Consequently, it is in no need of its own Lamarck and Darwin, or their discoveries, and can realize its synthesis on the basis of already present principles; (2) now still must develop in the same way general biology developed, which is not included in biology as its part, but exists side by side with it. Only in this way can we understand the analogy, which is possible between two similar independent wholes, but not between the fate of a whole (biology) and its part (psychology).

Vagner’s (ibid., p. 53) statement that biopsychology provides “exactly what Marx requires from psychology” causes another embarrassment. In general it can be said that Vagner’s formal analysis is, evidently, as irreproachably correct as his attempt to solve the essence of the problem, and to outline the content of general psychology is methodologically untenable, even simply underdeveloped (part of biology, Marx). But the latter does not interest us now. Let us turn to the formal analysis. Is it correct that the psychology of our days is going through the same crisis as biology before Lamarck and is heading for the same fate?

To put it this way is to keep silent about the most important and decisive aspect of the crisis and to present the whole picture in a false light. Whether psychology is beading for agreement or rupture, whether a general psychology will develop from the combination or separation of the psychological disciplines, depends on what these disciplines bring with them–parts of the future whole, like systematics, morphology and anatomy, or mutually exclusive principles of knowledge. It also depends on what is the nature of the hostility between the disciplines–whether the contradictions which divide psychology are soluble, or whether they are irreconcilable. And it is precisely this analysis of the specific conditions under which psychology proceeds to the creation of a general science that we do not find in Vagner, Lange and the others. Meanwhile, European methodology has already reached a much higher degree of understanding of the crisis and has shown which and how many psychologies exist and what are the possible outcomes. But before we turn to this point we must first quit radically with the misunderstanding that psychology is following the path biology already took and in the end will simply be attached to it as its part. To think about it in this way is to fail to see that sociology edged its way between the biology of man and animals and tore psychology into two parts (which led Kant to divide it over two areas). We must develop the theory of the crisis in such a way as to be able to answer this question.